“That’s Ed Koch, looking very young, and me — very young,” said Lili Fable as she pored over a black and white photo of herself and the Mayor at the very first 9th Avenue Food Festival. “Look at all these faces, these New York faces.”
Fable has seen a lot of faces over her years organizing the festival, now in its 47th year after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Over the course of the festival’s nearly 50-year tenure, Fable has met mayors, celebrities, and many, many everyday New Yorkers pass through the long stretch of 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. While every year has presented its own unique challenges and changes, memories of the past half-century flow freely as Fable thumbed through photos of the festival’s earliest years.
“One year when Koch came, it was a miserable morning,” Fable recalled. “When he got out of his car at 57th Street, Evelyn Regino and I were there waiting, and all of a sudden, a cloud parted and a beam of sun came through. I looked at him, and said, ‘Did you do that?!’ and he said, ‘Lili, it’s a sign, just for me,’ and I said, ‘Well thank you for that.’ Everyone knew exactly who he was. Someone would run up and say something to him and he’d say, ‘Don’t be a schmuck all your life.’ That’s a curse!” she laughed.
Memories of colorful mayoral language aren’t the only eye-opening festival stories she has to tell. When Fable, the proprietor of the nearly century-old Poseidon Greek Bakery and Maria Gardini, the former co-owner of beloved 9th Avenue pharmacy Alps, initially teamed up in 1973 to put together a celebration of the neighborhood’s culturally diverse foods, they were met with more than a few door slams and even a few potential mobsters.
Said Fable: “When all of this started, Maria and I — young mothers, each helping our husbands in their stores — went around going into each and every store to say, ‘We are having this festival. We’re here to celebrate what we’re all about — are you interested in joining? You can’t believe how many people said, ‘Oh no, no. We’re not interested.’” Fable and Gardini persisted, hoping to get local business owners to donate $15 in exchange for participation in the festival and “their name printed on a very nice shopping bag” for festival-goers to pick up.
Rick Rodriguez, a fellow longtime organizer of the festival, emphasized the impressive nerve of the womens’ first campaign. “It was at a time where women did not do that sort of thing in New York,” he said. “They walked right down to the other side of the bridge — we used to call it [the area South of W42nd St) ‘the other side of the bridge’. It was a whole different neighborhood controlled by the social club gentleman,” he added.
“Every now and then, a strange guy would come up to us and say, ‘We want to be in the festival,’ and we’d say, ‘Oh, what’s your business?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, we don’t have one’. And we quickly realized these were gangsters,” said Fable. “We ran into a couple of instances like that, but because of our attitude — which was, ‘We’re doing this for the betterment of our community’ — we weren’t afraid. Because we didn’t know exactly who they were. They might have known who we were, though,” she added.
In the end, the first year of the festival went ahead with a pioneering spirit, as local businesses pulled together to meet the unexpectedly passionate interest of the neighborhood.
“I remember that the Manganaro’s hero boy made six-foot heroes, but they ran out of them on Saturday. He baked all night to make sure we had more for Sunday,” recalled Fable. I remember that it was the first time we introduced Spinach Pie to the American public — we sold everything on Saturday and Yaya and I had to work overnight and bake them the next morning to have them ready. And it became a big thing — New Yorkers loved to have these Spinach pies.”
The festival was so successful that Fable and Gardini even felt confident enough to celebrate their inaugural year with a dinner at the “social club gentlemen”-friendly Guido’s Restaurant (located in the back room at the erstwhile Supreme Macaroni Company and notably also the back album cover art on Billy Joel’s The Stranger ).
“The first night of the festival, we went to eat at Macaroni Supreme, and there were all the guys, just sitting around,” said Fable. “My husband Anthony nodded to some of them — they probably knew him and his brother as part of the neighborhood — and after that, they always greeted us. Every time we walked down there, it was ‘Hello, Mrs. Fable.’ They were very nice. And after the second year they didn’t try anything. I still don’t know how they thought they would be making money — we were just hoping the store owners would come out for their $15,” she laughed.
Fable’s fearless, no-nonsense approach comes from a lifetime living in Hell’s Kitchen, where she still resides in the apartment above the Poseidon bakery space. Her son Paul, who has taken up the mantle in helping Lili run the bakery, also grew up in the space upstairs — and still lives there with his family. “Your father and your uncles fell asleep upstairs to the sound of sanitation trucks, a crash here and there,” recalled Lili.
Deeply in tune with her neighborhood, Fable made sure that the festival reflected the area’s eclectic culinary palate. “People wanted to try something different and something ethnic. We didn’t allow any hot dog stands,” she said.
Even in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, fighting gentrification was already an uphill battle. A 1974 New York Times article profiled the changing face of the neighborhood, noting that along with the sense of urban renewal cultivated by the festival, a revived interest in the West Side brought the same rent increases that many small businesses face today — and with them, the same empty storefronts.
While the rising rents had sent some elsewhere — even in 1974, Fable remained a staunch supporter of the avenue. Quoted in the Times, Fable said: “‘I have friends who say, ‘You live on Ninth Avenue?’” she said. “I could kill them. This is The Place, in the middle of everything.”
As its long standing president, Fable has ensured that the 9th Avenue International Food Festival remains in the middle of everything. “We’ve been known to have 500,000 people over the two days,” said Fable. I can’t tell you how delighted people are that we are having it. Not only the people in our neighborhood, we’ve been getting calls all along Long Island, Jersey, and Montauk — we’d get phone calls from Montauk: ‘It’s raining out here. What’s it doing there?’ I’d say, ‘It’s not raining here,’ and they’d shout ‘We’re coming in!’ They’d jump on a train or ride their cars in. I was always impressed by that,” she added. Adding to the celebration’s reach, Fable and Gardini even published a 9th Avenue Food Festival Cookbook cementing some of the vendors hit dishes into Hell’s Kitchen history.
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After a difficult two-year shutdown, Fable remains determined to shepherd the festival into a new chapter, emphasizing the need for the area’s businesses to receive more-vital-than-ever support and to raise money for local organizations. “I’m very happy to say we are still giving away almost 20 spots to community people to raise money. And those are free, we don’t charge them for it. We try to put them in different places, and whatever they earn goes towards their organization, whether it’s a block association, or it’s a little office, or they’re doing something to help children,” she said.
She also hopes to re-engage the city’s administration with the festival. “We’ve invited this Mayor to come — we don’t know if he’s going to come, but if he does, he’ll see a whole new area of the city he probably never comes to.”
Regardless of any boldface named attendees, one thing the Fables are certain of is that — just as they have shown up for nearly a half-century — Hell’s Kitchen natives will return to 9th Avenue this weekend. Said Paul: “Even if they don’t live here anymore, they still come out once a year to see how everyone’s doing. We’ll see kids that we went to school with. It’s kind of, it’s a reunion.” “They are looking for places that they remember. And I think they’re always pleased with what they find,” added Lili.
And for those who may have written off the city altogether, Fable has an appropriately Hell’s Kitchen-esque response. “When people say New York is finished, I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. New York is never finished — the city has come back from the worst sorts of disasters, and they’ll come back from this.”